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The Problem of Media Stupidity | The Nation

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The Problem of Media Stupidity

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There is a specter haunting America today. It is the specter of stupidity. A few months ago, I wrote a column I called “The Problem of Republican Idiots.” Believe me, this problem has not gone away. Rick Perry, the Republican Party’s presidential front-runner right now, believes the phenomenon of man-made global warming to be a conspiracy by “a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data.” No less alarming is that this stupidity is apparently contagious. The men and women who inhabit the upper reaches of the US media (and pull down the multimillion-dollar salaries) appear to believe that to do their jobs properly, they must make themselves behave like idiots in order to be “fair” to the Republicans and their idiotic ideas.

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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The architects of our foreign-policy disasters would prefer we simply forget the past.

I have in mind two examples, both involving, as it happens, David Gregory, host of NBC’s Meet the Press. Neither one is exactly new, but I picked them because not only is Gregory host of television’s highest-rated Sunday morning news show, by far, but his program is also considered to be the most influential and important of all TV news programs. As the alleged gold standard of television interviewing and discussion, it sets the tone for much of the rest of the week’s reporting. Also, I just can’t get these two examples out of my head, they are so damn stupid. See if you agree.

I. On August 13, discussing the Ames, Iowa, straw poll, Gregory made this observation on MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown: “You know, Perry talked about potentially seceding from the union. You think that’s extreme. Well, people on the other side think introducing healthcare reform for the whole country is akin to European socialism.” To be honest, in the space allotted to me I’m not sure I can do justice to the multiple forms of stupidity this comment manages to combine. But let me try. To begin with, we have the stupidity of lavishing so much attention on the wholly meaningless Ames straw poll in the first place. Leave that aside. Gregory was trying to create a sense of moral and intellectual equivalence between Rick Perry’s 2009 suggestion that Texas might secede from the United States—an action that set off the Civil War when South Carolina did it in 1860—and Obama’s proposal and Congress’s passage of a healthcare reform bill modeled on the one put in place by Mitt Romney when he was the Republican governor of Massachusetts. Given that Obama dropped the bill’s public option, the legislation relies entirely on private healthcare providers and does not create any significant new government bureaucracies to help implement it. When all is said and done, the program is a modest—and in many ways disappointing—version of a vision that has been part of American debate since Teddy Roosevelt proposed it in 1912 and Harry Truman made it a central part of the Democratic Party platform since 1948.

Moreover, Gregory applies the word “socialism” not only to the legislation but also to contemporary European economies. Here one is forced to inquire, “Which ones?” France, Germany, Britain, Italy, etc., are all capitalist economies led by conservative governments. True, Republican idiots like Newt Gingrich—Gregory’s most frequent guest in 2009—use the word “socialist” to mean “enjoys a higher tax rate on wealthy people than Republican funders would prefer,” but why must Gregory misuse it in the service of the same cause?

In Gregory’s defense, one might say, “Well, he didn’t say it was literally true. He merely said, ‘People on the other side think….’” Well, yes, but “people on the other side” also think the Holocaust was a hoax. They think the Jews planned and profited from the destruction of the World Trade Center. Will Gregory be quoting those folks so respectfully? Rather, the host of Meet the Press is taking the mindless media phenomenon that Paul Krugman has helpfully named the “Cult of Balance” to intellectually indefensible extremes, and in doing so, as Krugman rightly notes, is helping to “destroy America.” To treat the potential destruction of the United States via the secession of its second most populous state and the provision of affordable healthcare to its citizens with privately provided health insurance as somehow morally and intellectually equivalent—well, “stupidity” is actually too kind a word.

II. On February 20, during a Meet the Press discussion of the Wisconsin labor protests, CNBC’s Rick Santelli explained to Gregory, “If the country is ever attacked as it was in 9/11, we all respond with a sense of urgency. What’s going on on balance sheets throughout the country is the same type of attack.” In the wake of the tenth anniversary of the attacks, I don’t think I need to remind readers of what those attacks entailed or the horrors that ensued as a result thereof. On the other hand, some states are experiencing crises on their balance sheets, owing largely to the fallout from the extremely deep recession that began in early 2008; and instead of raising revenues through higher taxes on corporations and extremely wealthy people (“socialism”), their governors—mostly right-wing Republicans—have responded with a campaign to destroy teachers unions and defund their pension plans. Again, on America’s most respected television news program, it is apparently OK to equate a problem with your fiscal balance sheets with terrorist mass murder. Here again we see the “cult of balance” destroying the brains of our press corps. Sure, Santelli’s false equation is almost unbelievably stupid, but it is also something else: a deliberate attempt to manipulate the emotions of Americans—and in this case, exploit the deaths of thousands of his fellow citizens—in the service of an assault on the living standards of not only teachers but all working people.

The great irony of the above is that it’s hard to imagine even any Wisconsin public school fifth grader uttering such errant and obvious nonsense. To be fair, however, nobody’s paying them the big bucks to “balance” the insanity of America’s ascendant right wing with, um… real life.

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